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the faithful a September 11 photo taken as President Bush spoke on a phone aboard Air Force One. At the Democratic National Committee, rainmaker- in-chief Terry McAuliffe called the move grotesque and declared: We know its the Republicans strategy to use the war for political gain, but I would hope that even the most cynical partisan operative would have cowered at the notion of exploiting the September 11 tragedy in this way.
A Republican spokesperson quickly defended hawking the September 11 picture, which is part of a limited edition series that includes a pair of photos from Bushs inaugural and his speech to the joint session of Congress soon after 9-11. These pictures are of historic moments from the presidents first year and are living testimony of his courage under fire, and leadership, said Carl Forti. It is frankly offensive that anyone would suggest otherwise.
With both parties properly offended, a genuine media flap ensued. The displays of tender sensibilities could hardly have been more contrived, but the sniping was significant as an opening skirmish in a protracted media battle aheadto define the boundaries of political uses for 9-11 imagery in upcoming congressional races and the struggle for the White House in 2004.
Democrats yearn to set tight limits on the inevitable attempts to cloak GOP candidates with hallowed September 11 symbols. But Republicans are determined to retain the valuable political finery.
Genuine shock on September 11 did nothing to displace the ongoing processes of political calculation. That days tragic events made it possible to drastically reduce the number of Americans who were apt to see George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as no more statesmanlike or compassionate than Howdy Doody and Phineas T. Bluster. For a president whod finished second in popular votes, any hard-nosed calculus could grasp that the September 11 tragedy, while horrific, was a political godsend.
Predictably, month after month, the loyal opposition in Washington largely confined itself to loyalty. Democratic Party tacticians abetted Bushs key post-9-11 policies. Keep hundreds of people behind bars while tossing the precious right of habeas corpus on the junk heap? No big deal. Kill a few thousand Afghan civilians with Pentagon firepower in the name of the war on terrorism? Not a problem. Support the Israeli government as it mimics the apartheid-era South African regime with new heights of deadly repression? Sure. Launch the biggest long-term upsurge of U.S. military spending in decades? God bless America.
But as the November elections draw near, top Democrats cannot stand idly by and let the Bush administration play its political hand with September 11 imagery. While most pictures are worth a thousand words, said Al Gore, a photo that seeks to capitalize on one of the most tragic moments in our nations history is worth only onedisgraceful.
Akin to condemning Al Capone for jaywalking, the controversy over Bushs 9-11 photograph reflects the alignment of both major parties within the wingspan of the establishment media. And vice versa.
With few exceptions, political journalists dont perceive an issue as worth covering unless theres a split within or between the two parties. When such a split exists, then reporters devote appreciable coverage to the matter, and pundits are pleased to choose sides.
Unhappy that the Republicans are marketing the set of 9-11 photos for a minimal $150 contribution, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd complained bitterly: With all the class of a 1:30 AM infomercial for an electronic ab stimulator, the GOP pitched donors, for a bargain price, a pictorial triptych of W.s defining moments.
But much of the media backlash seems due to sentiment that exploitation of September 11 should be less tacky and more subtle. The photo fund-raising gambit lacks the sort of propagandistic refinement that graces numerous Bush speeches, which continue to gain Democratic nods and media plaudits while invoking 9-11 to back up visions of an ever-mightier Pentagon as a pivotal solution to the worlds problems.
A new stage is underway in a bait-and-switch process that began more than eight months ago, with fervent praise from news media. First came a glut of patriotic imagery and simplistic presidential oratory, all touted as wondrous expressions of sorrow, caring and human solidarity. The star-spangled visual images and carefully crafted Bush applause lines were soon affixed to missiles that shattered Afghan lives as innocent and numerous as those lost at the World Trade Center.
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Now, the bait-and-switch is turning into an election-year sales pitch. To the extent that partisan strategists see any advantage, 9-11 imagery will be plastered onto campaign machinery. You may not like it, but youll probably get used to it.
Still Not Good Enough From Barbie To Botox
In a twist of fate, obituaries appeared for the inventor of the Barbie doll just as a $50 million advertising campaign got underway for an anti-wrinkle drug with a name that memorably combines the words botulism and toxin. Expensive injections of Botox are already popular among women eager to remove lines from their faces. The ad blitz of mid-2002 is certain to boost the practice.
American women between the ages of 30 and 64 are the prime targets, and 90 percent of them will be hit with Botox pitches a minimum of 10 times. Launched with a paid layout in People magazine the first week of May (Its not magic, its Botox Cosmetic), the print ads use before-and-after pictures. Network TV commercials are part of the campaign.
Newsweeks April 29 edition, looking ahead to Companies of the Future and The Office of Tomorrow, featured one woman on the cover. Wielding some kind of futuristic gadget, this proto- typical office worker was ultra-thin and wore several-inch spike heels as she sat in a transparent chair with a distinct resemblance to a martini glass.
Despite all the progress for womens rights and against rigid gender roles during the last few decades, its chilling to take a fresh look at routine depictions of women in mass media. Beauty-is- skin-deep renditions of what it means to be female help to explain the allure of Botox shots that cost about $500 and lose effect within four months.
When we think about loved ones, we probably arent very concerned about their wrinkles. But acculturation runs deep and begins early. In a society seemingly at war with naturewhile consequences range from ozone depletion to water pollution to pesticide-laced cropsit stands to reason that such hostilities would extend to our own bodies.
After 85-year-old Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie, died in late April, some news stories noted that Barbies plasticized, idealized proportions were impossible for girls to live up to. The New York Times reported, If the 11 1/2-inch doll were 5-foot-6, her measurements would be 39-21-33. Londons Daily Telegraph put the figure at 39-18-33.
Styles change. And for the past third of a century, new waves of feminism have effectively critiq- ued a lot of such destructive role-modeling. We may prefer to think that Barbie-like absurdities have been left behind by oh-so- sophisticated 21st century media sensibilities. But to thumb through the current Cosmopolitan is to visit a matrix of content and advertising that incessantly inflamesand cashes in onobsessions with seeking to measure up to media-driven images.
In 1985, legendary Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown made a candid statement about the relationship between her magazines articles and its ad revenue: Having come from the advertising world myself, I think Who needs somebody youre paying millions of dollars a year to come back and bite you on the ankle? At the time, Cosmopolitan was under fire for printing cigarette ads while staying away from articles about the terrible health impacts of smoking.
Today, Browns comment still applies more generally to mainstream mediaparticularly television and magazinesin relation to countless ads. Large amounts of dollars pour in from advertisers hell-bent on stoking womens unhappiness with their bodies and promising relief if only the female is willing to part with some cash. Meanwhile, media outlets rarely challenge the unspoken assumptions and manipulations behind advertising.
Satiric anti-ads in the latest issue of Adbusters magazine include a full page filled with close-ups of two sets of lips along with the words Perfectionism is a malignant force in our society. That tagline begs for probing the question of what we mean by perfection. Ads that saturate pervasive media keep claiming to offer perfectly marvelous products; theyre functional as surrogates and substitutes for the wondrous complexities of nature.
Media veneers frequently sparkle with apparent high regard for women. Yet indications abound that much of the advertising industrys idealization of fabricated female images is based on contempt for real women, who, like nature as a whole, must lack the sort of mass-produced uniformity that can be readily packaged and sold.
Endless media messages convey the stubborn presumption that women can never be good enough, but should live and buyand ultimately dietrying. First Barbie, then Botox.
Media And Political Faith
Weeks before the 20th century ended, the pundit Michael Kinsley was uncommonly direct in a Time essay that defended the virtues of the World Trade Organization with these words: But really, the WTO is OK. Do the math. Or take it on faith. Delivered by the flagship magazine of the Time Warner conglomerate (soon to merge with AOL), the message was more overt than usual: We should devoutly accept certain pronouncements as conclusive.
Z MAGAZINE JUNE 2002 3
Such rigid faith is dangerous. It undermines critical thinking. Its wide open for manipulation by mainstream news outlets, as well as by some who present themselves as anti-establishment.
Decades before the invention of television, the American historian Henry Adams was essentially correct when he wrote about the dominant media of the day: The press is the hired agent of a monied system, and set up for no other purpose than to tell lies where their interests are involved. In substance, there is much truth to that observation in 2002.
But those who, with good reason, refuse to trust the corporate media are scarcely better off when they lower their standards to buy into dubious claims from alternative sources. If were going to be tough critics of mainline news outlets, then we should refuse to suspend our critical faculties when we consider reports and claims from elsewhere.
A case in point is the story much ballyhooed via the Internetthat a man behind bars in Toronto wrote a warning note before the September 11 events. Were told that Delmart Mike Vreeland is a U.S. Navy intelligence officer who penned the note and gave it to his Canadian jailers back in August.
But Vreelands notations, introduced into evidence in a Toronto court last October, amount to an ambiguous mish-mash. The phrase water supplies appears in an unexplained list of landmarks and cities, including not only the World Trade Center, White House, and Pentagon but also sites in Chicago, Ottawa, Toronto, and Malaysia. Let one happen, stop the rest, Vreeland scrawled. Below are first names and random words like Vladivostok and bilateral. The only dates are 2007 and 2009. To call it a warning note about the events of September 11 is preposterous.
Two years ago, a Detroit newspaper reported that Vreeland was on the run after leaving behind a prodigious array of scams including identity theft, bogus credit card use and large check fraud. The story quoted a Troy, Michigan police sergeant: Wherever he goes there seems to be a trail of fraud, deceit, and crime.
I called Mike Martindale, the Detroit News reporter who wrote the April 27, 2000 story. Has there ever been any sort of correction or retraction to the article? Not at all, he said.
A former Los Angeles cop named Michael Ruppert has been proclaiming that Vreeland was able to write a detailed warning of the attacks before they occurred on September 11. Ruppert has attracted a loyal following, but hes likely to lose all but the most faithful adherents if they look at the actual warning note or find out more about Vreelands background.
Yet Ruppert is an expert at combining facts with unreliable reports and wild leaps of illogic. Last fall, he began declaring that the CIA had foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks. More recently, he has boosted this rhetoric to claim, the Bush administration had complete foreknowledge of the attacks.
Ruppert excels at a selective vacuum cleaner approachsucking in whatever supports his conclusions while excluding context and information that would undermine them. Meanwhile, hes apt to tout unsubstantiated tales as revelatory. For instance, while citing an Indian press report that Indias intelligence service linked a Pakistani government agency to the September 11 hijackers, it wont do to point out that India would have a strong motivation for pinning terrorism on arch-rival Pakistan.
Another technique is to imply that exploitation of events after they occur indicates direct involvement beforehand. So, the fact that the Bush administration has done all it can to take advantage of September 11 events is presented by Ruppert as backing up his claim of its foreknowledge and complicity.
Its appropriate to demand a thorough congressional investigation of events surrounding September 11. But its something else to make sweeping pronouncements without credible evidence.
For people keenly aware that presidents have often lied about foreign policy, it may be tempting to assume that just about any claim of governmental deception has the ring of truth. But eagerness to believe is no substitute for willingness to think critically.
Some genres of conspiracy -huckstering represent a kind of non-politics, encouraging Ameri- cans to fixate on secret teams and a few evildoers rather than challenge the basic institutional forces behind social injustice and war. But the well-documented actions of the U.S. government and powerful corporations should be enough to rouse us into sustained attention, outrage, and activism. Z
Solomon is author of The Habits of Highly Deceptive Media.
His syndicated column focuses on media and politics.